Jesse @ 75

Jesse Jackson

The Reverend Jesse Jackson was 75 years old on October 8. In his honor, there was a packed house celebration at the headquarters of Rainbow PUSH, 930 East 50th Street, in Chicago.

As I sat in the audience and listened to the various speakers, I had flashbacks and wanted very much to rush the stage. I have known the good reverend and his family since I was a late teen.

When Dr. King died in 1968, I felt so guilty that I had the opportunity to get involved in King’s Civil Rights Movement and I didn’t. After King’s death, Jesse’s organization, then Operation Breadbasket, met at the Parkway Ballroom on 47th Street and King Drive.

I was a very fast typist and wanted to volunteer my skills in that regard. I went to the Saturday morning meetings and then to the offices on 47th Street. I sat in the office every day for a full week waiting to volunteer. No one paid attention to me. I was shy and dared not speak up.

Rev. Jackson was coming out of the office one day. By this time, I had decided that this was just not going to work out. I walked up to him, to say I had been waiting for a week to volunteer and had gotten nowhere.

He said what do you do. I said, I type about 100 words a minute. I know office work. I am a college student and a graduate of Jones Commercial High School. He asked why I had been sitting in the Breadbasket office for so long and scolded me somewhat for just sitting and not speaking up.

Rev. Jackson put me to work instantly, connecting me with Rev. Willie Barrow, the famed civil rights activist known as The Little Warrior. On Saturdays I would sit with an older lady and a little girl. We had a meeting place and became friends as we sat together.

One day the little girl sat in my lap and we played and talked and became fast friends. Jesse came to tell them it was time to go. The older lady was Jesse’s grandmother and the little girl was his oldest daughter, Santita. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a life-long friendship.

I have watched Jesse’s organization grow since the days on 47th Street. I have seen Jesse grow from being a fiery young minister to a one of the greatest minds and orators of our time.

He is probably the most analytical person I know. He analyzes situations quickly, to the point, and is usually right. His mind and wit are sharp. As his wife, Jackie, and I have sometimes discussed with others, 75 was not necessarily a reality that we thought he would see.

We have witnessed civil rights leaders cut down, often not making the senior stage of life. And here we are, 75 is here. Bravo. As I sat in the audience on October 8, I thanked God for Jesse’s life. I am glad we have lived in the same era and I am glad that we live in Chicago.

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The Jesse Interview

Often, I am interviewed about Jesse. I usually ask reporters which Jesse are they inquiring about; his career has such span. Most of all he is a man of the cloth, a real minister. Little do people know that he visits the sick and has funeralized many.

He is my favorite minister. He preaches like no other, making the Bible real to contemporary issues. In days past, Jesse use to preach a Christmas sermon about Mary, Joseph and the baby. He brings the story current. He is a brilliant preacher and I still look forward to a real Jackson sermon.

Then there is the enterprising Jesse. He has done more for Black business in America than anyone. I have seen him so many times take Black enterprise to its next level, from getting products on main store shelves, to advertising, to introductions, to opening doors that have been locked, to cross over to knock down, to boycott to new business in new arenas to Black Expos to business conferences.

This is the Jesse I know best. His phone call, his knock on the door, his meeting is powerful. And I love it. I have seen the business people come and go. Come when they need assistance and ask Reverend to mentor and/or to be their savior. And then forget where the help came from at fundraising time. I have seen him do it again and again and again with no regrets. He is a big man.

Jesse Changed American Politics

Jesse will of course go down in history for his political role. He ran for President of the United States in 1984 and 1988.

His historic run in 1988, “Run Jesse Run,” changed American politics, changed the Democratic Party, led to the election of Bill Clinton and paved the way for Barrack Obama to become the first Black President of the United States.

Jesse added more than seven million new people to the voter rolls, making African Americans a voting force that determined elections. Jesse changed the election rules. He provided a bold leadership.

Jesse Jackson

In his runs for president, I mostly remember the debates. As the commentators talked about European, Russian, and Chinese politics, Jesse asked, what about South Africa’s apartheid.

His comments brought the Nelson Mandela story to the front of a world table. It was the beginning of the process of Mandela getting out of jail after 27 years. Jesse and family members were the first Americans to meet with Nelson Mandela in Cape Town upon his release.

Jesse provided a bold leadership on a national stage and made Whites pay attention and listen to his voice. His international stances have been historic. His conversations with Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic bought home hostages, Sgt. Christopher James Stone; Sgt. Andrew Arthur Rameriez and Sgt. Michael Gonzales.

Because of that, Jesse’s status rose because he proved he could function on the international front positively when other world leaders could not and did not. He amazed and rose to hero status.

Jesse has been a superman in the release of hostages. He secured the release of downed pilot Robert Goodman, in 1984. He negotiated with Cuba for the release of 22 Americans held there. He also negotiated the release of several British and Americans being held by Saddam Hussein in 1991 as human shields. He is a skilled negotiator.

All of it was done without U.S. presidential or congressional approval, but for his achievements, President Bill Clinton presented Jesse this country’s highest civilian award, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1999.

Jesse Jackson Backstage

I have been backstage with Rev. Jackson. I have seen him up close and personal. He functions mostly without a script, but with a sixth sense that causes him to move this way rather than that way.

He is religious. He lives his faith. His work with young people might go unrecorded, but he is most effective when telling stories as he makes a life point to young folk. He presents the civil rights movement in context, telling and describing why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a decision or why he marched. Jackson has carried King’s work forward.

Some of his work on how many people have benefited from his political strategies might be missed. I remember when I brought a young man, an aspiring politician, to meet Rev. Jackson one Saturday morning.

He doesn’t know what an eight-hour day or punch-the-clock day looks like. He is a workaholic who doesn’t stop until the job is done.

The young man was green and I asked that Jesse take him under his wing, which he did. Jesse allowed him to speak every Saturday from his stage to perfect his public speaking skills.

I and Martin King (now the Chairman of the Board of Rainbow PUSH) had heard this green young man – Barack Obama – speak and for the office he was seeking, his speaking skills didn’t match.

I volunteered Rev. Jackson as counsel and took Barack to meet with Jesse and made a mentoring request. I told Jesse I think he is going to be a real political star and we need to help him. The rest is history. I have seen Jesse do this a lot. He will allow you to perfect on his dime as he coaches and mentors in his very unique way.

Jesse helped me with my homework in college. We talked a lot about books, theories, philosophies and the like. I sometimes shared my papers with him for critique. One paper I was particularly proud of, the teacher gave me a lower grade than I expected. He questioned my writing style.

I was in tears and shared the situation with Jesse. He looked at the paper, and said, is the teacher a white male. Yes, he was. He said this paper has got too much black power in it. Tone it down. But he challenged me to write some speeches for him. I did.

We took that paper with all of his power to a newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, and they printed it as an op-ed piece. Jesse suggested I take the newspaper article with my byline to the professor. I did. That one incident demonstrated to me how to address an issue. A writer was born and damn the professor was my attitude. I asked the professor did he have any published writings. He did not.

There are many stories like that one. Al Sharpton held Jesse’s hand to leadership. So did Judge Greg Mathis, who Jesse got out of jail only to become a lawyer to become a television judge.

Jesse encourages education at every level. He is a great teacher. No he doesn’t write on the blackboard – he holds your hand through it. He demonstrates by example. He has allowed some to live it with him, not necessarily knowing the outcome.

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I remember Black Expo. It was a project that I love and where I learned so much, as I chaired the Cultural portion. It was my first step in leadership, marketing and event planning and organizing. Jesse has shared as he has taught. It still pains me when I hear him talk about how he went home from college in South Carolina to write a term paper and required a book from the library that he could not use because he was Black. This was his very first demonstration.

I have seen Jesse confront the rich, the famous and the powerful with common sense and win them over. He has been fantastic. I have seen him outwork and outlast most, to this very day.

Many half his age are looking for the eight-hour work days, but that’s not Rev’s style. He doesn’t know what an eight-hour day or punch-the-clock day looks like. He is driven. He is a workaholic who doesn’t stop until the job is done and it is contagious.

There’s much to be said about Rev. Jackson and I’m sure many will try to say it. Many already have; several writers have written books about him. But given his life, I so hope that Jesse writes his very own book, to share his 50-year career on the public stage in his very own words. He has been at the forefront of major social/political/economic issues and movements for the past 50 years.

I hope the documentary will be done on him to tell his story from his own view. It is his words that count, his interpretation and his very own analysis. It is his story to tell, not to be missed.

Jesse is one of the most misunderstood people by the public, through the mass media, because he confronts the media with a harsh racial reality. I so wish Jesse was running for president now. Can you imagine him and Trump in a debate?

So, at the end of the day, Jesse at 75, there’s nothing to say but THANK YOU for a lifetime of service.

Hermene Hartman
Hermene Hartman

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